Calls for Corporate Accountability Rise as Death Toll from Bangladesh Factory Collapse Climbs

The death toll from a garment building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh climbed to at least 200 Thursday, more than doubling initial reports, according to the Associated Press. The updated body count comes amid revelations that factory owners ignored police orders to evacuate the property, leaving more than 2,000 mostly female workers to perish in a ramshackle building.

As search crews combed through the rubble for survivors, NGOs and activists spoke out against Western corporations that push international manufacturers to cut costs at the expense of workers’ lives. According to the New York Times, activists discovered labels and documents in the wreckage from Walmart, the Spanish brand Mango, British chain Primark, Dutch retailer C & A, Benetton and Cato Fashions.

“What we're saying is that bargain-basement (clothing) is automatically leading towards these types of disasters,” John Hilary, head of War on Want, told Reuters.

“The front-line responsibility is the government’s, but the real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Walmart, H & M, Inditex, Gap and others,” Scott Nova, executive director of Workers Rights Consortium, told the Times.

Bangladesh is the second biggest clothing manufacturer after China, but rising wages in the latter country has pushed corporations to look elsewhere to cut costs. The minimum wage for Bangladesh the country is $37 a month. Times’ reporters Julfikar Ali Manik and Jim Yardley explain how Bangladesh’s miniscule wages have transformed the country into a global center for garment manufacturing.

Such low labor costs have attracted not just Walmart but almost every major global clothing company, including Sears, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and many others. Bangladesh now has more than 5,000 garment factories, employing more than 3.2 million workers, many of them women, and advocates credit the industry for lifting people out of poverty, even with such low wages. Exports also provide a critical source of foreign exchange that helps the government offset the high costs of imported oil.

Just five months before the collapse in Dhaka, a fire in the nearby Tarzeen factory killed 112. That carnage compelled multinational corporations to pledge higher safety standards for their hired sweatshops.

“I made clothes for Walmart, Sean Combs, Disney along with others … and I’m here to ask them to pay the full and fair compensation to us and at the same time ensure factory safety in Bangladesh,” Sumi Abedin, a survivor from the Tarzeen factory fire, told Democracy Now Thursday through interpreter Kalpona Akter, who is also Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Akter said none of the companies attended a meeting to discuss paying compensation to the fire’s victims and their families.

Corporations have been silent, cautious or completely dismissive of responsibility in the wake of the Dhaka disaster. A Walmart spokesperson told the Times that it’s looking to see if the company produced clothing in the collapsed factory. A spokesperson from Benetton denies any link.

Meanwhile, the corpses pile up while emergency workers continue to scout for survivors. The Associated Press reported a chilling account from Dhaka:

An Associated Press cameraman who went elsewhere into the rubble with rescue workers spoke briefly to a garment worker pinned face down in the darkness between concrete slabs and next to two corpses. Mohammad Altab pleaded for help, but they were unable to free him.

"Save us, brother. I beg you, brother. I want to live," Altab moaned. "It's so painful here ... I have two little children."

Another survivor, whose voice could be heard from deep in the rubble, wept as he called for help.

"We want to live, brother. It's hard to remain alive here. It would have been better to die than enduring such pain to live on. We want to live. Please save us," the man cried.

And disturbingly, while search crews pulled bodies out of factory rubble, victims sept and moaned and families mourned the deaths of their loved ones, Slate’s Matt Yglesias used the collapse in Dhaka, which he wrongly reported as a fire, to defend the premise that “Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That's OK.”

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